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off to egypt

About Egypt I shall have a great deal to relate because of the number of remarkable things which the country contains, and because of the fact that more monuments which beggar description are to be found there than anywhere else in the world. (...) Not only is the Egyptian climate peculiar to their country, and the Nile different in its behavior from other rivers elsewhere, but the Egyptians themselves in their manners and customs seem to have reversed the ordinary practices of mankind. 

-- Herodotos (who then goes on to describe how "women pass water standing up, men sitting down")

monk by the sea

Not part of the current Caspar David Friedrich exhibition, unfortunately, is 'Monk by the Sea'. One of Friedrich's most striking, almost Expressionistic (in 1809) evocations of the divine in nature, this is the painting of which Heinrich von Kleist remarked that "since in its monotony and boundlessness it has no foreground except the frame, when viewing it, it is as if one's eyelids had been cut away."

Weirdly, when googling this painting the image results give a whole palette of differently colored paintings: blue, green, grey, purple. As I've never seen the original (in Berlin), I really have no idea which image shows the 'real' painting.

I'm guessing it's blue/grey...

Monk by the Sea - Caspar David Friedrich

on a sailing ship

The Amsterdam Hermitage currently has a small exhibition of nine paintings and a number of drawings by German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. Among his wild and Gothic landscapes with solitary figures contemplatively lost in their majestic natural surroundings, 'On a Sailing Ship' stands out as a particularly hopeful, man-made vision.

On a Sailing Ship - Caspar David Friedrich

In many of his works, Friedrich used foreground figures with their back to the spectator, taking in the splendor of vast landscapes. Gazing along with them, the viewer is drawn into the image, and his gaze anchored in the background. To put it in film terms: Friedrich's paintings are like over-the-shoulder shots, aligning the viewer's gaze with that of the characters shown. The effect is a shared sense of awe, of meditation on nature and divinity.

'On a Sailing Ship' is one of the most dramatic examples of this motif. The foreground dominates the composition, but the gaze is still drawn, along with the couple's, to the vista of the city skyline in the background. It is a powerful way of conveying the first glimpse of a new destination and the surge of expectancy it creates. The city on the horizon can't but be a mythical destination.

Update: See also this overview of Friedrich's over-the-shoulder shots.

the simorgh

It's a bit weird to use a spoiler warning when reviewing a book that's over 800 years old. But 'The Conference of the Birds' ('Mantiq at-Ta'ir'), by twelfth century Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar, contains a philosophical twist that's best experienced firsthand in this 4500 line allegory.

In Persian mythology, the Simorgh (or Simurgh) is a giant bird, a benevolent deity as old as the world, related to the Greek phoenix and the Hindu Garuda. But its name in Persian also means '30 birds' ('si morgh'), a pun which Attar used for his story.

The story begins when the birds hold a conference lamenting the fact that they have no leader. The hoopoe then tells them about the Simorgh, the king of birds who lives behind the far-off mountains of Kaf.

It was in China, late one moonless night,
The Simorgh first appeared to human sight -
He let a feather float down through the air,
And rumours of its fame spread everywhere;

Led by the hoopoe, the birds set out to find the Simorgh. Like in the 'Arabian Nights', the central story provides a framework for countless smaller stories, parables and fables, in this case illustrating both the splendor of the Simorgh and the various moral shortcomings of the birds.

During their journey the birds pass seven valleys, each symbolic of a stage on their way to find God. Along the way, many birds give up, and when they finally find the Simorgh, only 30 birds are left. Here Attar makes use of the Simorgh word play in one vertiginous image of divinity:

There in the Simorgh's radiant face they saw
Themselves, the Simorgh of the world - with awe
They gazed, and dared at last to comprehend
They were the Simorgh and the journey's end.


They ask (but inwardly; they make no sound)
The meaning of these mysteries that confound
Their puzzled ignorance - how is it true
That 'we' is not distinguished here from 'you'?

The pilgrim birds have reached the ultimate goal of Sufism: the total union with God, which is to say the total realization of the fact that there is nothing but God, as God is the whole universe. (For a Western version of this pantheistic doctrine, see Spinoza.)

Then, as they listened to the Simorgh's words,
A trembling dissolution filled the birds -
The substance of their being was undone,
And they were lost like shade before the sun;
Neither the pilgrims nor their guide remained.
The Simorgh ceased to speak, and silence reigned.

In his essay 'The Simurgh and the Eagle', Jorge Luis Borges compared the Simurgh to the Eagle's head in Dante's 'Paradiso' (Canto XVIII), which is composed of thousands of just kings. (His verdict: "The Eagle is merely implausible; the Simurgh, impossible." Coming from Borges, I'd say calling an idea impossible is high praise.)

Summing up the genius of Attar's story, Borges writes:

The imaginative power of the legend of the Simurgh is apparent to all; less pronounced, but no less real, is its rigor and economy. The pilgrims go forth in search of an unknown goal; this goal, which will be revealed only at the end, must arouse wonder and not be or appear to be merely added on. The author finds his way out of this difficulty with classical elegance; adroitly, the searchers are what they seek.

The Attar quotes are from the translation by Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis. There's another by Edward Fitzgerald (who also translated Omar Kayyam).


Emiliana Torrini, the Icelandic Italian singer with the angelic voice, proved herself a talkative entertainer at Paradiso last night, chatting and joking in between her mostly delicate, folksy songs.

Backed by a four-man band, she played most of her new album 'Me and Armini' (whose title she attempted to explain by way of a long story involving whiskey, ghosts and a nail file). Skipping old favorites like 'Unemployed in Summertime' (whose lyrics of "I've only just turned 21" she confessed had become a bit too confronting), her new material had plenty to make up for it, with highlights like the subtly psychedelic 'Birds', and the haunting 'Ha Ha' and 'Gun'.

Here's some video footage of the hilarious moment when Torrini tried 'Bleeder' and cracked up midway through the first verse.

the railroad station

My nonarrival in the city of N.
took place on the dot.

You'd been alerted
in my unmailed letter.

You were able not to be there
at the agreed-upon time.

The train pulled up at Platform 3.
A lot of people got out.

My absence joined the throng
as it made its way toward the exit.


The railroad station in the city of N.
passed its exam
in objective existence
with flying colors.

The whole remained in place.
Particulars scurried
along the designated tracks.

Even a rendezvous
took place as planned.


- Wisława Szymborska

From the translation by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh. Full text here.